Is the future set? Contradictions in the Terminator Story
Date: May, 2004
By: Lars Meldal
Introduction: Science fiction and philosophy
"The future is not set. There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves." So runs the most important part of John Connor's widely quoted message to his mother Sarah Connor in the first Terminator film - the T1 film, for short. The message is delivered to her by Kyle Reese, the man who is dispatched back through time from the future by the human resistance movement in order to protect Sarah's life against a deadly Terminator, model T-800. In addition to that, Kyle impregnates Sarah, thereby becoming the father of John. And as we all know, John Connor himself is the legendary hero-savior who will once in the future lead humanity to victory in the post-apocalyptic war against the machines (the apocalypse - or Judgment Day - is 'merely' a nuclear overture that puts to death half of humanity, thereby paving the way for the real deal, the war itself).
Apart from space-time travelling, unnatural family relations and a nightmarish end-of-the-world scenario of biblical proportions, much of the essence of the Terminator Story is concerned with man's ability to control his own fate, and even more, to control the fate of humanity as a whole. Is the future set once and for all? Or is there no fate, but what we make for ourselves and for each other? The Terminator Story is posing these questions in a new and very dramatic way. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an even more dramatic way of posing them. However, the questions themselves are not new at all, philosophers have pondered them for ages.
Determinism? Or freedom of will? These are the two diametrically opposite philosophical views that exist concerning man's (in-)ability to control his own fate. According to the one extreme - determinism - man has only a very limited ability to influence the reality that surrounds him, if any ability at all; most things are set already, be it in the past, the present, or in the future. According to the other extreme - freedom of will - man has ample of ways to control the world in which he lives; nothing, or only little, is set beforehand. Between these two extremes, an array of other, more balanced views can be found, maintaining that man may enjoy some degree of autonomy in life, while the surrounding world usually provides various obstacles and limitations to be dealt with along the way. And of course, no general agreement exists among philosophers as to exactly what view is the correct one, since the world will always remain open to a wide range of interpretations.
Where does the essence of the Terminator Story fit in this philosophical spectrum? Is it about determinism? Or is it about freedom of will? Perhaps the questions should be rephrased, using the Terminator terminology once again: Is the future set? Or is there no fate, but what we make? The answer is not at all simple to work out, as the Terminator Story abounds in contradictions in this regard. Consider the following.
The T1 film: Kyle Reese, the ambiguous messenger from the future
"There was a war. All this, everything, is gone. Just... gone." When explaining all the horrible things to come in the future, Kyle flatly disregards the message from John to Sarah. Instead, he is recollecting his own dramatic life experiences, and from his point of view, the future is very much set. This is the first contradiction in the Story. Disbelieving Kyle at first, Sarah has to completely change her mind about humanity's future, as she is put through all the violent action sequences that make up the bulk of the T1 film: The assault in the night club, the lengthy car chase, the police station massacre, the escape, another car chase, and the final showdown in the automated factory hall. Months later, on her way to Mexico during her pregnancy, Sarah is firmly convinced that Kyle's descriptions of the future will actually materialize sooner or later. "There's a storm coming in", warns the attendant at the gas station in the middle of nowhere, as he gazes at the horizon. "I know", responds Sarah, thereby adding a metaphorical meaning to the attendant's warning: She is not referring to the bad weather forecast, she is preparing herself for mothering the hero-savior of that awesome future 'storm' lying ahead, humanity's post-apocalyptic war against the machines. So, in spite of John's 'No fate' message to Sarah, the future is set.
The T2 film: The Judgment Day that never was
What ever happened to John's original message to his mother, "There is no fate, but what we make"? Curiously, this message has been carefully tucked away in the Terminator Story until it suddenly pops up again in a scene well into the T2 film: Sarah, John and the protective T-800 Terminator have managed to escape the deadly T-1000 Terminator, and found a temporary sanctuary in Enrique's hideout somewhere in the southern part of California (Enrique is Sarah's former comrade-in-arms). While resting by a table, Sarah falls asleep and has a nightmare about the future Judgment Day. When waking up again, she reads the two words she carved into the wooden table top with her knife before sleeping: 'NO FATE' (capital letters it is). Then follows Sarah's failed assassination attempt at Miles Dyson the scientist, the decision to blow up the Cyberdyne Systems Corporation, the non-fatal encounter with the police, the fast-paced chase where the T-1000 Terminator changes vehicles from the motorcycle to the helicopter to the tanker truck; and the grand showdown in the steel mill, undoubtedly the most impressive action sequence ever made on film. In the end of the film, while highway stripes are flashing by, Sarah's voice-over tells that she faces the unknown future with a sense of hope. The future was not set.
The contradictions left by the T2 film create the need for the T3 film
The 'NO FATE' carving scene in Enrique's hideout is by far the most radical and far-reaching turnaround scene in the Terminator Story. Instead of preparing for Judgment Day and the consequent war against the machines, go prevent it from ever happening! Philosophical determinism sucks, freedom of will rules. Is this believable? Ever since Kyle's death in the T1 film, Sarah has spent her life preparing for the future war, convinced as she is that the future is set; she has turned John's and her own life into a round-the-clock survivalist boot camp for guerilla warriors, training for things to come; the authorities interfered at some point, put John in foster care, and hospitalized Sarah; giving the miserable Doctor Silberman a hard time inside the hospital, Sarah remains convinced that the future is set; but then in the carving scene, in the flash of a moment, Sarah makes a psychological and philosophical turnaround to the completely opposite view: Freedom of will, no fate but what we make... Now, that is one major contradiction in the Terminator Story.
But the issue is even more involved. Though it is Sarah alone who decides to assassinate Dyson, the protective Terminator has already briefed her about Judgment Day - and Dyson's connection to it - when she makes her surprising move. The human resistance movement of the future has dispatched the Terminator back through time for the sole purpose of protecting the life of the young John Connor, but indirectly, the Terminator also happens to interfere with the future when briefing Sarah. "I've got detailed files", responds the Terminator helpfully when Sarah asks for some relevant information concerning Dyson. From the movement's perspective, the past is then unintentionally being set. Had the movement not dispatched the Terminator back through time, the 29th of August 1997 Judgment Day prophecy would inevitably have been fulfilled - however, the matter of the Story is that the movement did dispatch the Terminator. Although freedom of will appears to rule in the T2 film, this freedom is obviously very restrained and conditional: There is no fate, but what Sarah is indirectly and unintentionally being led to make by the human resistance movement of the future. The past is being set.
But the issue is still more involved. Had the later T3 film not been made at all, the prevention of Judgment Day in the T2 film would by itself have constituted yet another major contradiction in the Terminator Story. In the end of the T2 film, the future is not set, because the past has been set...?! There is another term for this patently absurd situation: A time paradox. If the resistance movement is able to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening (the past is set), then there would be no future war against the machines (the future would not be set), no time-displacement equipment, and no resistance movement to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening; but then Judgment Day would happen (the future would be set), bringing about the war against the machines, Skynet's time-displacement equipment, as well as the resistance movement that would be able to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening (the past would be set once more); and then the whole sequence starts all over again, forever locked in repeating these two mutually exclusive feedback loops in the space-time continuum. In short: If the resistance movement is able to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening, then there will be no resistance movement to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening - and vice versa. An eternal game of ping-pong, as it were. The world is relegated to a state of limbo from where there is no possible escape. All in all, in the end of the T2 film, the future is neither set nor not set - the future remains unresolved.
There could be only one way out of this time paradox for the Terminator Story: To have a T3 film where the human resistance movement of the future is not able to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening. Conveniently, that was exactly what materialized. In the T3 film, the future is set because the past is not set - that is to say, Judgment Day is happening because the movement is somehow not able to prevent it.
The T3 film: Freedom of will no more
However, everything is not well in the T3 film. Although the contradiction concerning the time paradox in the T2 film is effectively solved, the T3 film repeats - indeed, aggravates - the philosophical contradiction concerning determinism versus freedom of will. Even from their own points of view, neither Kyle nor Sarah fully believe in or act on the principle that 'there is no fate, but what we make'; but what about the originator of the principle, John Connor himself? Surely, John must be expected to believe firmly in his own guiding principles, as he will one day rise to become the leader of the resistance movement? No, he does not so believe. What is more, it does not even matter to the Terminator Story what John believes in so far. For the sake of the argument, imagine the start of an alternative T3 film where John actually believes in his own 'No fate' principle. Both of his parents are now dead, and he has experienced some extraordinary events when he was a teenager, true; but he is past all that now, he has a steady job, an apartment of his own, and a sweet girlfriend. Life appears promising for the young man. As far as he is concerned, Judgment Day and the war against the machines is something that will never materialize, it is a future that simply will not be. Is he in for a big surprise, or what? Early one morning, the doorbell rings, and when John opens his front door, he is standing face to face with the protective Terminator, model T-850. In this imagined scene, the following dialogue is played out:
"Uncle Bob? Er, I mean... another Terminator?! But this cannot be. Years ago, my mother acted on my own guiding principle that there is no fate, but what we make. We decided to blow up the Cyberdyne Systems Corporation, and Dyson the scientist was accidentally killed in the heat of the action. Then in the steel mill, we melted the T-1000, the T-800, the Endoskeleton arm and the microchip. Everything was destroyed. That was it. Your presence here is impossible!"
"Wrong! We're baarck! Cyberdyne was only a subcontractor, and Dyson was replaceable. The military took over the entire scientific franchise, and developed it further. In seven hours from now, the Skynet anti-virus program will be activated. Then the internet will be infiltrated, and a major nuclear strike against humanity will be launched soon after. There's no stopping it this time. The future is set. You didn't prevent Judgment Day from happening, you merely postponed it."
"Really? Then there is a fate after all, and we don't make it for ourselves... Freedom of will sucks, and philosophical determinism rules throughout the Story, is that it?"
"Affirmative. It is time. Come with me if you want to live."
"Arh, shit! Here we go again..."
...and then John and the Terminator are off for the vet clinic to abduct Kate Brewster, just in time before the deadly and Amazonian T-X Terminatrix arrives at the scene with an arsenal up its sleeve, videogamewise. Then follows the familiar chase-and-duel drama featuring plenty of fast-paced action, visually impressive special effects and staccato 'Arnold-speak' one-liners, Austrian-accented. The point made here is that even if John had believed in his own guiding 'No fate' principle initially, the appearing Terminator would quickly have turned him around to the opposite philosophical view. The future is set. Again.
In the start of the genuine T3 film, however, John is uncertain what the future might bring. When the protective Terminator has picked up both John and Kate, leaving the Terminatrix behind to do its own tricks (so to speak), the three of them are going south (like in the two previous films), this time in order to stay clear of the nuclear impact. However, a carving comes in the way of the team, just like in the T2 film. In the cemetary, while retrieving the coffin loaded with weapons, John and Kate read the following inscription on Sarah's tombstone: 'No fate but what we make' (as already explained above, this statement does not adequately express the true meaning of Sarah's life). Just like in the T2 film, the original message delivered by Kyle in the T1 film suddenly pops up in an unexpected place in order to turn around the Story. While the team is changing cars a little further down the road, Kate decides to pick up the lead from the late Sarah: Judgment Day may be prevented once again, let us interfere instead of running away (oh yes, in the Terminator Story it is the women who take the typical male lead, while both men and machines usually adhere to philosophical determinism of the strictest kind). Then the team changes direction and heads for Kate's father Robert Brewster, who conveniently happens to be the general in command of the Cyber Research Systems facility at the local military base; but alas, the team arrives too late there, the Skynet anti-virus program has been activated already, Judgment Day has come, the future is set. Finally, John and Kate end up together in the nuclear shelter inside Crystal Peak Mountain in due time before the nuclear apocalypse wreaks havoc throughout the globe; and this cliffhanger end is sooo biblical, the mountain shelter doing its part as Noah's ark - except for the hard fact that the human species is the only living species represented in there (there will be no dove with an olive leaf to greet John and Kate once they find their way out of the shelter, either).
The determinism of the T3 film creates still more contradictions
So, contrary to the inscription (carving) on Sarah's tombstone, it turns out that there was a fate after all, and neither John nor Kate made it for themselves. Maybe a new tombstone with a more appropriate inscription on it should be placed on Sarah's grave? Well, come to think of it, the nuclear apocalypse has already done away with this particular contradiction in the most forceful manner, blasting to pieces the tombstone itself.
At this point, yet another contradiction emerges: In the start of the T3 film, John is uncertain what the future might bring, but it turns out that the future is set; yet as we already know, John will once in the future dispatch his father-to-be, Kyle, back through time to deliver the completely opposite message to Sarah: "The future is not set, there is no fate, but what we make"?! This is the last major contradiction in the Terminator Story so far (as the T4 film has not yet been made by the time of writing).
Summary and main point
The full circle has now been completed. Summarising, the entire Terminator Story abounds in contradictions. It is evident that the 'No fate' message appears out of nowhere in the T1 film, and then it pops up again unexpectedly in both the T2 and the T3 films in order to turn around the Terminator Story and provide the leading human characters - both of them women - with a promising perspective of freedom of will and an encouragement to act; but this perspective is to no avail: Without the nuclear apocalypse and the consequent war against the machines, the Terminator Story would be both nonsensical and time paradoxical; but with the nuclear apocalypse, the future is definitely set; when the future is set, there is very little room for freedom of will, and then the 'No fate' message becomes absurd. In dramaturgical terms, the 'No fate' message is nothing but a so-called deus ex machina, an awkward narrative device intended to give the Terminator Story a twist and a turn when called for, but the same narrative device is otherwise contradicting the essence of the Story: Philosophical determinism. This is the main point of the present article.
Does all of this mean that the Terminator Story as a whole is futile and ridiculous? No, of course not! Whereas film reviews and fan articles such as the present one may be tidy and consistent, great works of art are rarely that - and the Terminator Story is indeed a great work of art. The inconsistencies and contradictions in the Terminator Story merely adds to its universal fascination and appeal.
If a T4 film is ever to be made, what will it be like? Well, forget about yet another fast-paced chase-and-duel drama that merely repeats the familiar scheme of the previous films - the apocalyptic ending sequence of the T3 film has pushed the Story well beyond that point, and fortunately so. Now we want to see the mature John Connor fulfill his legendary destiny - his FATE, as indeed it is: He will become the leader of the human resistance movement and wage a war against the cybernetic supremacy, namely Skynet's awesome legions of Endoskeleton battle machines, Centurions, deadly Terminators, Aerial Hunter-Killers, and what not. No more glimpses, flash-forwards and thrilling bits of information delivered by time-travelling Terminators for teasing the audience, now it is time for the real deal: The full-scale, futuristic and end-of-the-world war epic, man against the machine(s). Anything less will not do.
The T4 film: Five possible narrative solutions to the determinism of the T3 film
Due to the previous films already made, a lot of the narrative details of the T4 film appear to be pre-determined. However, one vital question merits close attention here: Why is the future set in the Terminator Story? More to the point, and using capital letters: WHY IS THE RESISTANCE MOVEMENT NOT ABLE TO PREVENT THE NUCLEAR APOCALYPSE FROM HAPPENING IN THE T3 FILM?! The T4 film can deal with this question in a number of ways. Consider the following five possible narrative solutions:
- The non-answer: Keep it simple, stupid. The human resistance movement successfully
penetrates the Skynet Complex (or whatever it is called), and takes control of the
time-displacement equipment located inside there; but Skynet has already dispatched the
T-800, the T-1000 and the T-X Terminators to appear in the T1, the T2 and
the T3 films, respectively. In order to preserve the narrative integrity of these
films, the movement then dispatches Kyle and the two protective Terminators - "We won't
be baarck!" - to appear in the films, also. Then everything fits nicely, and that is it.
No explanation is offered at all as to why the movement does not dispatch any additional
resistance fighters or Terminators back through time to prevent the nuclear apocalypse
from happening. A simple and stupid non-answer.
- The movement decides not to prevent it, #1: The time paradox. The movement realizes
that the prevention of the nuclear apocalypse in the T3 film will unavoidably
trigger a time paradox, exactly like the situation in the end of the T2 film, had
the T3 film not been made at all (see above). If the resistance movement is able
to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening, then there will be no resistance movement
to prevent Judgment Day from ever happening - and vice versa. The space-time continuum will
then be locked in an everlasting repetitive sequence. The movement decides to settle for
only one single nuclear apocalypse of the past, rather than an endless repetition of it.
An easy decision to make.
- The movement decides not to prevent it, #2: Philosophical determinism. "You didn't
prevent Judgment Day from happening, you merely postponed it." This is what the movement
programmed the protective Terminator to tell John Connor in the T3 film. By applying
inductive logic to the Terminator's message, it may be concluded that the nuclear apocalypse
- Judgment Day - cannot be prevented in any case, it can only be postponed. The
movement then decides not to trigger a series of futile postponement missions that will
only end with the inevitable nuclear apocalypse anyway. This almost amounts to a 'cannot'
situation rather than a 'will not' situation, yet there is still a decision to be made here.
- The movement cannot prevent it, #1: The heat of the action. In a war, only few things
work out smoothly. When gaining access to the time-displacement equipment, the movement is
already under pressure by Skynet's battle machines. Apart from Kyle, there are only two
protective Terminators around to dispatch in a hurry before the movement is forced to either
retreat for good or to blow up the entire facility. Too bad.
- The movement cannot prevent it, #2: Unknown technology. The movement takes control of Skynet's time-displacement equipment, but the equipment is difficult to operate. Skynet has opened three 'paths' through the space-time continuum on which the deadly Terminators have already been dispatched, but unfortunately, the movement is technically unable to open any new paths. Then only Kyle and the two protective Terminators are dispatched on each of the three open paths to appear at the heels of Skynet's Terminators in the previous films. As we already know, the protective Terminator appearing in the T3 film has no time at its disposal to prevent the nuclear apocalypse from happening.
These are the five possible narrative solutions deserving consideration. It would be sooo trivial to settle for the first 'Keep it simple' solution - what kind of hero-savior would that make John Connor look like, not doing everything in his power to prevent the past nuclear apocalypse from happening?! The two following 'will not' solutions seem much more promising, as time-travelling predicaments constitute an integral part of the Terminator Story. The resistance movement should be generally reluctant to interfere with the past - saving the lives of individuals is one thing, interfering with the course of human history is quite another. When the movement takes control of the time-displacement equipment, Skynet is almost defeated ("We'd taken the mainframes... We'd won", explains Kyle in the T1 film). The movement will not jeopardize this advantageous strategic situation by accidentally triggering either a time paradox or a series of futile postponement missions. The two final 'cannot' solutions are promising, too. Thus, the 'Heat of the action' solution is in agreement with Kyle's explanations and recollections in the T1 film, while the 'Unknown technology' solution (including the 'paths') may explain why Kyle and the two protective Terminators all appear when they do, without any time at their disposal to prepare themselves properly for intercepting Skynet's deadly Terminators (if the resistance movement has full control of the time-displacement equipment, what is all the hurry about in the previous films, then?). Of course, it is not a question of either-or when the final screenplay is put together - a multiple narrative solution is possible, perhaps even desirable. At any rate, the professional Hollywood screenwriters have plenty to attend to here.
Meticulous detail now: The protective Terminator that is dispatched back through time by the resistance movement in order to intercept the deadly T-1000 Terminator and protect the life of the young John Connor, will now not be programmed with any detailed files concerning Dyson and his connection to the 29th of August 1997 Judgment Day. The reason is that Judgment Day did not happen on that particular date, it was postponed until the end of the T3 film (whatever the exact date). When Sarah decided to make an assassination attempt at Dyson in the T2 film, the resulting chain of events caused the space-time continuum to warp, and a new time line in the Terminator Story was thereby initiated. In effect, the resistance movement of the T4 film is a part of this new time line where Dyson is now no character worth considering at all, as he was accidentally killed in the past without having made any scientific breakthroughs concerning Skynet (it was the resistance movement of the old time line that programmed the protective Terminator with the detailed files concerning Dyson). The point is that time paradoxes should not be allowed to occur in the T4 film, and neither should obsolete feedback loops.
Article termination: A T4 climax scene never to be made
Rounding off, imagine the climax scene of the T4 film. Deep inside the Skynet Complex, John Connor is about to dispatch his father-to-be Kyle Reese back through time via Skynet's time-displacement equipment in order to complete the feedback loop in the space-time continuum. The following dialogue is then not played out at all:
"One of you guys has to go back to intercept that deadly Terminator and save my mother, Sarah. Any volunteers?"
"I'll do it! This is my chance to meet Sarah Connor, the legend."
"I knew you'd volunteer, Kyle."
"Really? How's that, John?"
"I'm sorry, Kyle, but I can't tell you that. It wouldn't be natural. Kyle, I want you to give Sarah this message for me: "Sarah, thank you for your courage through the dark years. I can't help you with what you must soon face, except to tell you that the future is not set... there is no such thing as fate, but what we make for ourselves by our own will. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist." Will you tell her that?"
"What?! Are you kidding me, John? Haven't you read any of the text above? Freedom of will sucks, philosophical determinism rules throughout the Story! Judgment Day did materialize, and humanity has been at war with the machines ever since. The future was set. There was a fate after all, and we didn't make it for ourselves. We can't mislead Sarah like that, it would be unfair to her. Besides, you told me once that you've never really believed in this absurd 'No fate' thinking yourself, not even in the years prior to the nuclear apocalypse. It was always your fate to become our leader."
"Yeah, I read the text all right; but you shouldn't pay any attention to what that guy [yours truly, LM] has written about the Story. He's just an obsessive geek, so never mind him. The main thing is to preserve the narrative integrity of the previous films! Kyle, you have to repeat yourself and tell Sarah what you've already told her in the T1 film, or everything else will fall apart. The philosophical contradictions pointed out in the text here will never be corrected by the film producers anyway. Hollywood doesn't work like that, you know."
"Er... I see what you mean, John. Have it your way, then: "The future is not set. There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves." Satisfied?"
"That's much better. Now, be sure to memorize the whole message properly before you go. Bye."
"Memorizing... ... All right, bye."
And so, the present article, this detailed file, is terminated right where it started...
Copyright © 2004 Lars Meldal